Tens of thousands of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s books have not been accounted for by the institution that paid for them or the mayor, even as public pressure builds amid accusations of “self-dealing” at the University of Maryland Medical System.

From 2011 through 2018, the hospital system had a deal to spend $500,000 for 100,000 copies of Pugh’s self-published book series. The system placed five orders of 20,000 books at $5 each while Pugh sat on the hospital’s board of directors. The deal, first reported by the Baltimore Sun, was one of many the hospital network had with members of its board, and they have rattled public trust in the system.

Pugh (D) said she returned $100,000 in the past several days for the last 20,000 books in her series that are still being written. She has also stepped down from the hospital system’s board.

That would mean 80,000 should have been printed and distributed. In the publishing world, that is an astounding number of books; for reference, the first U.S. print run of “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone” was for 50,000 copies.

The lack of documentation leaves unclear when and how the books were printed and distributed, as well as where such a vast quantity of books is now. The Sun has canvassed public and private schools, libraries, booksellers, child-care centers, and agencies to account for them.

It is not clear where at least an estimated 50,000 copies of the “Healthy Holly” series went.

UMMS didn’t fulfill a request to provide receipts showing the books had been printed or distributed; the mayor did not respond to such a request.

UMMS “didn’t feel the need to inspect the donation of the books,” spokesman Michael Schwartzberg said. “Even though funded by UMMS, the books were printed by a production company and delivered to the Baltimore City Public School System for distribution.”

Pugh said the books were to be distributed to the Baltimore school system and child-care centers around the city. She did not provide further breakdown of the distribution, and she also has declined to provide documentation showing where and when the books were printed and delivered.

In an interview, Pugh said she believed she sent 21,000 books to Baltimore City Public Schools, which she called the result of an agreement with schools officials. Officials there say they remember just one shipment, sometime between 2011 and 2013. Today, district officials estimate 8,700 are sitting in a warehouse off Pulaski Highway, and they have no other documentation related to the books.

Pugh has published four books in the series. They are each roughly 20-page picture books that aim to share tips for children on nutrition and exercise. They detail the exploits of Holly, an African American girl, and her active family.

UMMS reported in its 2014 tax form, which covers the year ending June 30, 2015, that it awarded a $100,000 grant to Healthy Holly LLC for “general assistance.” The medical center also named Healthy Holly as the recipient of the 2015 grant, and it names the Baltimore public school system as having received the money in 2017.

Archdiocese of Baltimore schools never got any “Healthy Holly” books, according to officials. The 14 Catholic Charities Head Start centers never received any, officials say. And officials with several city Head Start centers run by Dayspring said they knew they hadn’t received any copies in the past several years.

Maryland Family Network spokesman Doug Lent said it was not involved in the distribution of the mayor’s books in any way. The network represents dozens of child-care providers throughout the city. Lent said the organization did not know whether the books arrived at any of those child care centers.

Neither the Enoch Pratt Free Library nor the Ivy Bookshop carries any copies of “Healthy Holly.”

Some copies have turned up around town. Russell Wattenberg, the founder of the Book Thing, which gives away previously unwanted books free, said he has gotten a “few copies in, but that’s it.” Mark Feiring, the director of the Maryland Book Bank, said he has gotten “no more than 50 books,” all within the last few months.

Three parents whose children attended Childtime, a child-care center in downtown Baltimore, said they remembered their children getting copies of at least one of the books, probably more than five years ago. And some were distributed through the Center for Urban Families, where Pugh has served as a board member in the past and still serves as an emeritus member. At least some were probably handed out by individual city public schools.

The Y Head Start spokeswoman, Sara Milstein, said a staff member recalled some books being donated about six years ago. While the number is unclear, she said there were 300 students in their centers at the time, so they would not have gotten more than one book for each child.

— Baltimore Sun